Awful but True: Pings Were Not From Malaysia Airlines Flight 370

Australia called off the search Thursday, implying the stunning news the sounds heard in the Indian Ocean were not from the black boxes.

Junaidi Hanafiah/Reuters

Expectations that the remains of Malaysian Airlines Flight MH370 would be found soon have been dashed. The Australian leaders of the operation have announced the end of the search of an area extending over 329 square miles of the Indian Ocean about 1,000 miles northwest of Perth, Australia. “The area can now be discounted as the final resting place of MH370,” the Australian Joint Agency Coordination Centre said Thursday.

Early in April this area was said to be the most-promising target for the search. The Australian vessel Ocean Shield, tracking along a 205-mile arc, reported detecting four separate sets of ping signals believed to be coming from the missing Boeing 777’s flight recorders. Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott said “We are confident that we know the position of the black box flight recorder to within some kilometers.”

The Australians did not confirm Thursday, in so many words, what CNN first reported, that a U.S. Navy official has said that the pings were not, in fact, from Flight 370’s recorders—although that is implicit in Australia’s statement announcing the end of the search in that area. CNN quoted Michael Dean, the Navy’s deputy director of ocean engineering, saying of the pings that “our best theory at this point is that they were likely some sound produced by the ship…or within the electronics of the Towed Pinger Locator.”

The area of the Indian Ocean left to be searched for Flight 370 is vast—more than 23,000 square miles. This poses a challenge far beyond what can be achieved with the existing resources: Ocean Shield and the autonomous underwater vehicle, or ping detector, the Bluefin-21. It also raises the question of why more appropriate resources were not sent to the Indian Ocean sooner.

After an initial commitment by a virtual armada of ships, both from navies and merchant fleets of several nations, and an air search directed from Perth looking for floating debris, there was a sudden scaling back. The attrition of these operations, particularly affecting aircraft from the Royal Australian Air Force that were so old that they were nearing the end of their operational lives, was turning out to be extremely costly.

Nobody wanted to admit it, but without any sign of wreckage and with such a huge and remote area to cover, it just was not realistic to deploy so many resources for weeks on end that were not designed in the first place for an effort requiring extremely specialized equipment when the target was probably many small pieces of wreckage lying up to 2.8 miles below the surface in a place where there was no accurate mapping of the ocean floor.

This week the Australians announced that the next phase of the search might resume in two months, and that they will enlist the help of more experienced and specialized private companies—something that was done far more speedily in the search for Air France 447 in the south Atlantic in 2009.

The whole strategy of that search was different. First, unlike the search for Flight MH370, it was never continuous and open-ended. After the initial recovery of wreckage from the Airbus A330 (a boost that the Australian search has lacked) the priority was given to mapping the ocean floor in the area where the airplane was believed to be.

Then, over two years and in several carefully planned operations, sophisticated deep-water equipment was deployed until finally, in 2011, a highly-advanced remote-controlled Remus underwater autonomous vehicle from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts found a debris field at a depth of nearly 13,000 feet. The recovery of debris and bodies was made by a UAV called the Remora III, operated by a company called Phoenix International.

Weeks ago there were reports that another type of UAV, an Orion deep-water scanner (also used in the search for Air France 447) owned by the U.S. Navy but operated by Phoenix International might be sent to the Indian Ocean but nothing came of that. In any event, there are very few UAVs capable of a deep water search like this, and they are based far away, in the U.S. and Europe, and will take weeks to reach the target zone if summoned.

The Australian-directed search has been mapping the ocean floor with the help of a British Royal Navy ship, HMS Echo, but given the scale of the area now to be covered that work will take at least another three months.

The determination that the Boeing 777 had flown into the southern Indian Ocean was made on the basis of one amazingly fortuitous discovery—another set of pings, intercepted by a satellite owned by British company Inmarsat. They remain the only clue to the flight path of the 777 as it began its inexplicable diversion from its original route to Beijing and turned west and south until it ran out of fuel. The signals, transmitted automatically at regular intervals from the 777, were picked up from the satellite by an Inmarsat ground station in Perth.

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This week the Malaysian government, responding to complaints about a lack of transparency from relatives of the passengers missing on Flight 370, released the raw data used by Inmarsat to make its calculations. This was a strange gesture, since data in that form presents some of the most impenetrable and arcane material imaginable, capable of being interpreted by only a handful of experts in the world. As one relative said, “What help will publicizing this data provide toward finding the airplane?”